Does Manhattan Beach Unified’s iPad pilot program represent the future of education?
Photo by Alene Tchekmedyian/Easy Reader
On the syllabus for the day: the First Amendment.
As the first period bell rang, Caine unlocked the cart.
“Come and get ‘em,” Caine said to his class of seniors, and stood behind his podium, on which he’s pasted a sticker reading, “Think for yourself. Question Authority.”
The students put aside their pens and notebooks and lined up at the cart to pick up an unconventional tool that school districts across the nation have been implementing into classrooms.
Each student grabbed an iPad and returned to his or her seat.
Caine is one of 43 Manhattan Beach Unified School District teachers chosen to try the $500,000 iPad pilot program, which started last fall. At Mira Costa, two English, math, science and social studies teachers use iPads, along with eight science teachers at Manhattan Beach Middle School and 27 teachers of different grade levels at each elementary school. The district purchased 560 student iPads (32 gigabytes and costing around $700 each), in addition to iPads for pilot teachers and administrators.
A quarter of the pilot costs are grant funded, while the district supports the rest. Later this year, the School Board will decide whether, and in what capacity, to continue the pilot.
Caine and pilot teachers implement iPads into their curricula two to three times a week, a total of 30 to 90 minutes. “I would use them every day if I had the possibility,” Caine said, as he brushed his finger across the screen of his iPad, flipping through the applications he uses in class.
That morning, Caine’s class of about 30 students split into small groups, each settling in a corner on campus. Outside, a dynamic quartet acted out the day’s lesson, demonstrating a protest in front of a church.
“Pro-choice, pro-choice, pro-choice!” Carly McPherson and Katie Brown chanted, as another group member filmed using the iPad.
“Get out of here! This is a church, you’re interrupting mass!” another group member, Courtney Duong, yelled on camera.
The group, giggling, gathered around the iPad to playback the scene. Within seconds, they were filming the next scene – Connor Wright assumed the role of a police officer and arrested the protestors for disturbing the peace.
“This is unconstitutional!” McPherson yelled, on camera. Group members would later edit their video on the iPad using iMovie.
Later this year, Caine’s class will be assigned to create political campaign commercials.
Nationwide, schools are embracing iPads in the classroom, despite much data to prove its impact. Critics say that administrators, seduced by the “latest and greatest,” are too quick to implement technology into the classroom.
Regardless, classrooms, which have remained static for decades, are changing. “(The pilot program) is sometimes hard for people to wrap their head around because it has so much potential to change how a classroom looks,” said Ellen Rosenberg, Manhattan Beach Unified School District board president.
The program is one element of the district’s effort to shift its educational focus from the “three R’s” – reading, writing and arithmetic – to the “four C’s” – communication, critical thinking, collaboration and creativity, said Karina Gerger, the district’s 21st century learning administrator. “The four C’s move students to the forefront of being active participants in the global community,” Gerger said.
While data is still scarce, administrators maintain that technology is the future of teaching and will help build critical thinking skills and prepare students for higher education or the workforce. “These are the kids, at three years old, that are driving around in the back seat with smart phones, intuitively using technology,” Rosenberg said. “If we don’t have something in place, we’re going to be missing out.”
“It is our responsibility to do what’s best for our students, to prepare them for the future,” Gerger said.
At a time when school districts are bearing the brunt of a weak economy as the state continues to slash its education budget, some teachers and students find using district funds for iPads difficult to justify. “An iPad is simply another distraction and a waste of funds that should be used for electives and class trips to actually viable places of learning,” one student participating in the pilot program wrote in a district-administered survey.
Others can’t imagine class without it. “With a textbook, you only have a limited amount of information that you can look up and use,” said Mira Costa senior Katie Brown. “When you have the iPad, we can all be looking at the same thing on the Internet, and the Internet is so big that you can just do anything.”
In June, 43 Manhattan Beach teachers officially became iPad holders. On the last day of school, they underwent a two-hour training session with Gerger and two Apple specialists to familiarize themselves with the iPad.
After the initial training, teachers were given a list of challenges to complete by the next session – they were sent to explore different applications, make a video using iMovie and take screen shots while using the device. In August, the pilot teachers reconvened for a two-day training session for each grade level.
Now, teachers at each grade level meet twice a month on their respective campuses. Once a month, all 43 of the pilot teachers meet at the district office.
Students began using the iPads in October. “At the beginning, I told teachers you can’t be fearful of putting the iPads in the hands of students because it’s inevitable that students may possibly know more than you when it comes to the iPad and its use,” Gerger said.
In terms of test scores, experts say technology’s impact has revealed varied results.
“In many cases, what we have is mixed studies,” said Terry Vendlinski, senior researcher for the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing at UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. He added that some studies show special technology – power points, iPads, iPods – do well, and others show no significant, or even a negative difference.
MBUSD found test scores increased from last year in an eighth grade science class piloting iPads at Manhattan Beach Middle School. On Maggie Mabery’s DNA test, 2 percent of students scored below basic this year, compared to 10 percent last year. Forty-two percent scored advanced this year, compared to 27 percent last year.
Test scores aside, administrators maintained that the iPad is a tool to enhance learning and creativity, not to replace teachers. “It’s not a tool that we’re looking at in terms of student achievement,” Gerger said. “It’s more of the creativity part, preparing those students to have those skills they’re going to need in the future.”
The district’s survey showed that more students and parents believed the iPad made the classroom a more innovative place for learning in January than in November, but the percentage of teachers with those beliefs had decreased over the same time period. In November, 82 percent of teachers thought the iPad made the classroom more innovative; in January, 68 percent thought that – 63 percent of high school teachers, 67 percent of middle school teachers and 72 percent of elementary school teachers.
“My experiences suggest that you can’t just put it in a classroom and expect it to do anything,” Vendlinski said.
Some teachers believe that in a rough economy, the cost of implementing iPads is exorbitant. “If you look over the last several years, teachers’ pay remains stagnant,” said Karl Kurz, 10-year teacher and president of the Manhattan Beach Unified Teachers Association. “In order for us to remain competitive, the biggest thing is to hire quality teachers.”
But technology in the classroom and 21st century skills is necessary to give students a competitive edge, Gerger said. “It’s difficult on all of us because we haven’t seen pay raise in a very long time,” Gerger said.
One tool, different functions
In Julie Brancato and Dina Moll’s kindergarten class at Grand View Elementary School, ten kids with crazy socks – it was “Sock it to Drugs Day” – sprawled out on a colorful alphabet mat, each with an iPad in front of them.
The class was learning addition and subtraction, a lesson usually woven into the curriculum towards the end of the year, using the application TeachMe: Kindergarten. “We just taught them addition and subtraction early on,” Moll said, adding, “I feel like we’re going to cover a lot more this year.”
If the child gets four questions in a row correct, they receive a digital coin.
“How many coins do you have?” Brancato asked a student.
“18,” the kid piped. With the coins, the kids can buy different items built into the application.
“I got 20 coins, my hand and my foot!” another squealed brightly.
Brancato said the kids are learning to save up their coins. “The first day they spent all their money, now they’re starting to learn that if they save their money, they can get something bigger like a treasure box.”
Game and content-driven applications work well at the elementary school level. Eighty percent of elementary students thought that the iPad makes class more engaging. Seventy-two percent of elementary school teachers thought the iPads facilitated more differentiated instruction.
More advanced students can move quickly through the program and the teachers are available to spend more time helping those who need assistance.
At the high school level, it’s difficult to find engaging, content-driven applications because the material is denser and more detail-oriented, Kurz said. For example, in elementary or middle school earth science, students learn the three basic rock types – igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic. But in high school, the rock’s grain size, texture and composition comes into play.
Many classrooms use Edmodo, a social networking tool similar to Facebook, for teachers and students to stay connected. Teachers can post comments, discussion questions and have students reply. Mira Costa’s Andy Caine recalled responding to his students while on jury duty.
Another benefit of Edmodo, Caine said, is that students who feel uncomfortable raising their hands and speaking during class can express their opinions in writing, during class. “I want them to form an expressive opinion, what they believe in. That’s the whole lesson of my class,” Caine said. “Kids that are shy, they can write it.”
In Patricia Ware’s seventh grade science class at Manhattan Beach Middle School on a recent Friday, small groups – “Team Mitochondria,” “Team Golgi Apparatus” and “Team Cell Nucleus,” to name a few – were presenting their iMovie videos on cell organelles.
Before Ware hit play, the students rushed up to scan their iPads on the QR– or quick response – code hanging on the wall near a life-size human skeleton model. Each code connected to a Google form Ware set up for peer evaluations. After the students completed the forms, the data was automatically sent to Ware’s Google account.
According to the district’s survey, in November, 97 percent of pilot teachers believed that iPads made class more engaging. The same survey conducted again in January revealed that 86 percent of pilot teachers thought iPads made class more engaging.
“To me, iMovie is the best app, because kids can create with it, instead of consuming,” Ware said, adding that when students see each other on camera in videos that they produced, they feel good about themselves. “Anytime you can create, it’s better.”
Training and understanding the technology is crucial, Ware said. “You couldn’t just throw it at a new teacher,” she said, of her particular video project. “You’d be frustrated and flustered.”
Kurz echoed the importance of continual training. “If you’re going to implement technology in any classroom, you’re going need to have the resources and funding to implement training,” Kurz said.
Effective teaching is the key to successful students, said Kurz, a self-described “edutainer.” “You can have just a whiteboard in a classroom as long as you have an effective teacher, that’s what makes a difference,” Kurz said. “I think technology is great, we need to have it, but at what cost?”
Vendlinski’s research suggests that technology doesn’t work on its own. Much support is needed on behalf of the teachers for a lesson plan using iPad games to run smoothly, he said. “Having somebody there who knows the kids, the games and can help the kids, scaffolding them or supporting them through small incremental learning opportunities is really important,” he said. “You can’t just show up, give games to kids and let them play and expect all your problems are going to be solved.”
On Jan. 19, Apple introduced a new educational initiative, iBooks 2, or textbooks for the iPad. In a presentation, Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of marketing, noted that as textbooks are passed down from student to student, “they get more highlighted, dog-eared, tattered and worn,” and the iPad could serve as an interactive, searchable, constantly updated tool to replace that.
Manhattan Beach administrators anticipated this. “One of main reasons we went with (the iPad) instead of the iPod touch is the size of screen in anticipation of textbooks becoming electronic,” said Gerger, adding that for students, a light iPad beats a backpack full of textbooks.
Recently, Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik argued that intersecting technology and education is helping technology firms more than students in the classroom. “It’s great to suggest that every student should be equipped with a laptop or given 24/7 access to Wi-Fi, but shouldn’t our federal bureaucrats figure out how to stem the tidal wave of layoffs in the teaching ranks and unrelenting cutbacks in school programs and maintenance budgets first?” Hiltzik wrote. “School districts can’t afford to buy enough textbooks for their pupils, but they’re supposed to equip every one of them with a $500 iPad?”
Redondo Beach Unified School District Board Member Todd Loewenstein created Beyond 451, a startup company working on creating a suite of applications for tablets aligned with the California Department of Education content standards. He hopes to launch in January of next year. “We think it’s going to change the way students learn,” he said, adding that education in the United States is stuck in the 20th century.
Loewenstein compared current iPad use in education to television in the 1950s. “There wasn’t a lot of programming,” he said. “There are a lot of apps out there, but people don’t know how to use the apps, it’s not organized…That’s what is missing here.”
Some educators believe that spending funds on other programs trumps spending on technology, perhaps at least until teachers are better equipped and trained in using new tools.
For Manhattan Beach Unified, moving forward with full implementation of iPads is costly. The district would need to shell out more than $2 million to put an iPad in each student’s hands. The district is also considering doubling the implementation, which would cost $400,000, expanding the pilot by providing iPads for all teachers, which would cost $150,000 or continuing the pilot as is for another year.
“Schools have to weigh what they think is going to be more instructionally beneficial to the kids,” Vendlinski said. But, he said, “People are becoming more and more expectant that those technologies are going to be available and integrated.”